The New York Pitch Conference: A Review as Brutally Honest as the Faculty
All I hear when I wrote the title of this blog post is an incorrect buzzer sound from our workshop leader, signaling the existence of a “crappy” title, and the displeased reaction of the word count of this post. Buckle up.
Hello, and welcome friends! It has been an insane 5 weeks and now, I’ve been crashing for the past couple of days. The New York Pitch Conference is over, I have returned to California, and am not eating pizza for dinner every night. Being a writer, writing unsurprisingly helps me organize my thoughts, and I feel like the only way to properly sort through the past week is to just go for it on here. This is a long post, that I have not edited, I want to give my raw thoughts on this, so take it in stages, and let’s hit it.
What is the New York Pitch Conference (NYPC)?
For those of you lacking background, the NYPC advertises itself as an event where you can learn how to pitch publishers and, eventually at the end of it, have a chance to actually do so.
So, what actually happened? Day One: The Harrowing
I can only speak for my experience and that of my group. I know there were two other groups who were more focused on different genres, with different faculty, so I don’t know how they got on.
So, unsurprisingly, I was in a group that was science fiction and fantasy focused. I think there was only 1 person in the group whose story was more grounded and based purely in our world as we know it (and they were one of the best, I wouldn’t be surprised to see their story published).
For the first two days we were scheduled for ‘workshops’. NOW, I think I am colored by my many years spent in academia by this, but when I hear workshop, I tend to think of an environment that is extremely collaborative, where everyone is around tables and things are very personal.
This was the literal opposite of that, in my opinion.
We were given only chairs and sat in a vague semi-circle around the faculty, and what followed next was quite harrowing. We went around the room in the order we were sat, and quite literally were told to pitch the faculty ‘cold’. After that pitch, it felt like more of a roasting session than collaborative, and most people had their pitches, titles, and ideas ruthlessly ripped apart – arguably, many were deserved.
NOW – faculty, if you ever read this: I get it, OK? That’s the whole point, isn’t it? You’re meant to fill that role of bad cops. You’re not coddling, you’re preparing. Tough love, blah, etcetera, right?
This is where you might hate me. I think many of us saw workshop and got the wrong idea. Just going in and pitching cold was…interesting. I think many weren’t ready for it, and I think it would have been better if we had received a warning before hand that this “workshop” wasn’t really what we would expect from academia, but rather a simulated pitch environment.
I know the advice and critiques given to the group were a mixed bag. For some, it was the difference between selling and not. For others, there was sentiment that their ideas and concepts were being brushed aside, and that the advice given felt more like a Hollywood marketing exec trying to find their next wacky Netflix hit. Again, I will counter this by saying that many people on Day 1 had legitimate issues with their work, and I also get the faculty is just living up to giving the best advice they can give to get that person noticed and published. I felt as that day progressed that my expectations had crashed into reality, and that I had to adopt a ‘it is what it is’ mentality, and let the advice and critiques of the faculty simply play out and do the best job I could of taking advice.
SIDE FUCKING NOTE: I was shocked that so many people, including faculty, had no idea about the video game world. I even had to interrupt a piece of advice, because they were literally describing The Witcher 3 right down to the names. It’s only sold 30+ million copies, and with the TV show, I thought, ‘how could you not know’? Very surprising to me, and let that be a piece of advice from me to fellow writers – check more than novels to make sure your concept hasn’t been done before!!
What does that mean for me – how did I do? (warning – this will sound ranty and kinda bitchy)
Well, I probably spent between 50-60 hours in the week prior to the conference reading the faculty’s pitch models and practicing and spitting out pitch after pitch, and it took me that long to arrive at what I wrote at 0230am the night before. When it was my turn, the faculty spent the least amount of time on me. Why? I can only speculate. I tried to follow their models of pitching and high concept titles, so there wasn’t really anything they could say about those. Unfortunately, one of the first things one of the faculty said was “I’m not a zombie fan.” Which made me internally facepalm, but it also gave me 1 of 3 pieces of crucial advice I would take away. The next five minutes were spent, mostly by the other faculty member, asking me if I had considered doing X, or Y, and me responding “yes, you’re getting the references, and yes, that’s where things are leading.” The other faculty member then said “why not do Z”, and I facepalmed again, as that concept proposed has been completely done to death in the past decade and was a burnt-out trend (I know my fucking genre).
So what did I take away? – From Day 1, I took away that the actual pitch that is expected of you in the business has almost nothing to do with your actual novel. It is a tool designed to make the person being pitched want to ask questions. I took away the following 3 pieces of advice:
Enough for now. End of Day 1. Frustrating, sure, but still coming away with some work to do.
Day 2: The Harrowing Redux
The ‘Word Count Conundrum’ and ‘The Debut Author Trope
I know Afflicted is “too long”. It doesn’t fit the trope of the debut author. What is the debut author trope? A short novel (under 100k words) that takes a concept that’s “IN” and puts a slightly new spin on it. I knew all this coming in because I do research and I’m not an idiot. Did I think the almost visceral reaction from the faculty when I mentioned my word count on day 1 was warranted? I know, their job is to give us the quickest avenue to success, but it still irritated me. I went into day 2 with an… elegant solution.
Day 2 was much the same as day 1 -sit in the powwow circle and get roasted. I think a lot of people who got annihilated on day 1 did better on day 2 as a result of advice on pitch structure, length, and content, and those who didn’t do better, didn’t listen to certain pieces of advice. I still know, again, that a couple people were quite unhappy at what they saw was an attempt to change their story to something they didn’t want to write. I’ll give some props to the faculty now – they gave people some great titles that, I know for one person, ended up completely changing how their pitch came off, and for others they helped refine concepts and ideas into something that “might sell” (key phrase). As for format, they definitely helped many people ‘tighten’ their pitches, make them how they’re supposed to be: short, punchy paragraphs that get the audience to ask a question or three. Which is their job and purpose here.
So, how about me?
Like I said, I came in with a plan for today. Some quick backstory: Dune is my favorite book, and the way Frank Herbert formatted its story has always had a big impact on me. Following his model, Afflicted is essentially a two different stories in one novel. I start off with the hero’s journey, coming of age model mixed with sort of a fetch quest and things go wrong vibe. I do all this, to position the characters for two crucial things: what happens next in the story, and how their arc’s need to progress. After the first 92,000 words, Afflicted changes. It becomes almost a sci-fi fantasy epic. Everything you – and my characters – know, changes after 92,000 words.
So, if the faculty wanted to fit me into the debut author trope, well, I knew I could just split Afflicted in two, much like how Denis Villeneuve has decided to do the Dune book in film. That’s what I pitched.
The two faculty members looked at each other, and didn’t really have anything to say. Me personally, I was seething inside. I’m pitching half a book to fit someone else’s mold, and it infuriates me. I brushed it aside internally: it is what it is. One faculty member was very insistent that the Afflicted still sounded like zombies, OK, cool, so I had another wrinkle to add – THAT WAS BOTH GOOD AND BAD ADVICE, and I’ll tell you why later. The other pretty much had no comment.
I think, class wise, we all got out of our shells more on day 2, and as I started hearing people’s pitches come together, and there were a couple that inspired me, one in particular which I ended up writing my own version of the pitch while she was talking. Chelsea, I can’t imagine what sort of mad-man I looked like, grabbing you before you got to the elevator, laptop out etc, frantically yet hopefully apologetically saying how I wrote something as you spoke. I didn’t want to overstep but when someone inspires me, they inspire me! I also made another friend – Katie :). NOW, anyone who knows me, they know I don’t make friends easily. I came into this conference determined to be more open and look for connections, and I feel like these two special writers both fit the bill. You guys made this thing way more fun, and I thank you for listening to my ramblings in the moment!!
Day 3: Hollywood Days and Happy Hour Nights
What happened on day 3: a Hollywood producer held a group pitch session with us. He was a cool, chilled out guy. Did I feel like he was really part of ‘the pitch we came here for’? Not especially. He gave off the vibe of someone looking for potential hidden gem ideas he could potentially option. Again, it was what it was, he wasd a nice guy who gave everyone positive feedback. Personally, I saw it as the final piece of my research puzzle. I’d had two days of advice to blend, and had another frantic 0300am night working away. What was my plan for day 3?
So, on day 1, I did a pitch focusing more on the second half of the story, about how Leah’s journey down the road of Affliction defines the story. I always consider her unique journey my x-factor, and something that will really draw readers in the more it progresses.
On day 2, as I’m pitching half the book, my focus was more on Ben, as it is in the book, and about how his hero’s calling and call to action. While Leah is a part of the pitch, the focus on her is more setting up her character than the X factor of her resistance to the Affliction.
So, Day 3, I decide, I’ll re-do my day 1 pitch, because I feel like the x-factor of Leah is too good to dismiss, and I’ll lie about the word count – well, not lie, I’ll speculate that it will be ‘x-number of words’ after edits. Predictably, the only problem was my word count not fitting the trope. I’m thankful the Producer immediately didn’t get a ‘zombie’ vibe from my pitch, and that is partly thanks to the advice from the faculty.
I have a phrase I’ve used in my life for many years, and that’s “PREACH TO THE LOWEST COMMON IDIOT”. Well, I was putting it into practice here: pitching a post-apocalyptic title with monsters in it that aren’t zombies, to people who aren’t fans of the genre who loosely only know ‘zombies’. Honing that mindset and combining it with faculty’s advice certainly helped my pitch evolve.
By this point, I had two pitches: one about Leah with a long word count that was more unique, and one about Ben with a short wordcount that fit into a box better. I had the faculty read both one after the other, and was advised to do the shorter version 2 about Ben. Was I happy with this advice? Well… I resolved to let this all play out, and lowered any remaining expectations I had.
That evening – We had a happy hour (which I got lost going to, so was fashionably late) and it was a blast. We really were lucky to have such a great group of writers, and most of us meshed really well together. Katie, if you’re reading this, Saturday was a blast. Did you expect that some crazy British guy would immediately begin ordering shots before 6?! I was also thankful to get to know the faculty a bit better outside of the workshop setting, when we’re letting our hair down. I’m a guy who thrives when I can make a connection with someone, who can ‘vibe’, and when I can’t form that, its just awkward. I felt like that evening helped me form a semblance of those, and being in a big social situation after the Covid nightmare is still a bit weird, and very draining!
Day 4 – PITCH DAY
This is it – the day had come. Our three ‘real’ pitches to literary editors. One from a big publishing company, one from a more publishing/media mix, and one from a more modern indie company. I was psyched for all of them. Again, big shout out to Chelsea for letting me read my pitch before I went in. I wasn’t nervous, really, but it helped me focus and get ‘in the zone’.
So, how did they go?
I will say this now – thanks to the snippets of advice given to me by the faculty, I felt like I was able to channel the pitch I gave and really streamline it into the format that is expected of a writer. Whether my pitches lead to anything, we won’t know for a while, but the foot is now in the door, which was my only goal for all of this.
Here’s an interesting ‘BUT’: as I’ve mentioned, I decided to play out the conference and advice I was being given. One of the main things I worked on was differentiating the Afflicted from a zombie. However, in both pitch sessions, one particular aspect fell flat, and it is one that one of the faculty had suggested. Interestingly, both editors asked me what my description was ‘originally’, to which I told them, and they both thought that made more sense. This is just another reminder to me that writing is subjective. It is its beauty and its curse, and what works for one will fall flat with another, and vice versa. It was also a reminder for me to trust my gut; that while you should seek out opinion and advice from more experienced players, don’t count your own insights out.
On the day, one of the pitches couldn’t go ahead due to technical difficulties (zooming from London), which was actually a blessing in disguise. Their company, well, I really dig them, and she’s someone I want to impress, and I feel like taking away my Day 4 experience will only help for this (rescheduled for Sunday, fingers crossed!).
Final Thoughts – After Reading all of this, was it worth it?
Yes. Easily. Real pitch time with editors, and an invaluable insight into the business side of the publishing world, and how that affects you as a writer. Oh, and the fact that you get to spend time with people who are your peers, and I know I was lucky to have such a great group. It was worth the time and money, and if the faculty – Michael and Audrey – ever read this, here’s a heartfelt thank you from me for your work and patience with all of us. If the editors we pitched ever somehow read this; it was really cool to meet you, to nerd out about Dune and the Walking Dead, and to just be able to chat about a project I am extremely passionate about on what should have been your Sunday off.
Thank you to everyone involved. Faculty, editors, and writers. While you may get pissy and annoyed in the first couple days here, that’s their job: to get under your skin and see if you can adapt and overcome adversity. It is for you to see if you have what it takes to continue down this career path. If you can set aside ego and attachment and just listen to people, and accept that you aren’t done improving, then this will be good for you.
Did I do a good job? Honestly, I don’t know. I tried my best. I have more knowledge now than I did a month ago. I have a more refined playbook for pitching. I have some work to do. If anyone reading this is thinking to apply to this event, if you are serious about taking that next step into the world of writing, this will help you figure shit out and give you a no nonsense “welcome to Earth” fist to the face that getting your debut novel published can be.
To Katie, Chelsea, Jess, Chris, Alex and Veronica especially; you guys made this amazing, and you are all excellent writers and, more importantly, excellent people. May we meet again.
Welp. That’s all I got. I’ve taken a few days off, but have some stuff to do before the final pitch Sunday at (gulp) 7am my time. To anyone searching google for reviews about this conference, if this pops up, I hope this gave you some insight. If anyone from our group reads this and wants to yell at me, you can get in touch over Instagram. The Link is at the end!
Stay cool, kids.